In 1990, curious advertisements in the German press informed readers of the unimaginable and disturbing number of photographs produced annually, while warning of the health threat posed by the chemicals contained in all this uncontrolled photographic material if they were not processed, or the risk to our latent intellectual capacity after this growing visual pollution. Fortunately at the Institute for Reprocessing Used Photos a service of qualified professionals offered a solution to this serious problem: “we collect used, abandoned and outdated photographs in black and white or in colour, including snapshots, photo booth strips, complete photo albums, contact sheets, test strips, negatives and slides, as well as damaged and shredded items, both in small and large quantities“. As a result of this claim, the “Institute” received thousands of photographs, albums and negatives that people sent for safe treatment and recycling.
This fake institute was part of the strategy devised by the German artist Joachim Schmid (1955) to collect used photographic material, which he would use as the basis of his artistic creation. And it is that the majority of this author’s works involve the search, collection and reuse of discarded materials, photographs intentionally discarded by their authors or owners, which Schmid patiently selects, classifies or intervenes to construct proposals in which he investigates the dual nature of photography (information/object) or its function within the social and cultural framework. The formulation of the announcement also reveals another constant of this author: the irony with which he usually adorns his interventions, which usually contain a subtle dose of criticism of the concepts of author, archive and museum.
In 1989, to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the birth of photography, Schmid and Fricke present in limited edition “Meisterwerke der Fotokunst” (1989) – Masterpieces of Photographic Art, which includes twenty “original reproductions” of unknown works by some of the greatest authors: Edward Steichen, Eugène Atget, August Sander, Berenice Abbot, Man Ray, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Ansel Adams, Du Michaneals or Cindy Sherman among others. A brief introduction signed by historian Helmut Gernsheim corroborated the prestige of the collection, and each reproduction was accompanied by precise information such as the title and date of the collection. After the initial delight and fascination of the public, the deception was revealed within a few weeks, since in reality the supposed original reproductions corresponded to amateur photographs found by Schmid in the Berlin flea markets and which, due to stylistic or thematic similarities – and undoubtedly reinforced by the ingenious historiographic and formal trickery – could be attributed in a convincing manner to the aforementioned authors. The critique of photography as an artistic commodity and the cult of the author legitimised by museum paraphernalia are evident here. Schmid questions and self-attributes the faculty of the museum to certify the authenticity of the work – even if falsely and only for a few weeks. The deception shows us, on the one hand, how those characteristics that we consider singular and distinctive of a celebrated artist are not really so exclusive and, on the other hand, that the function of the work of art is perhaps determined by elements alien to its creation. In the words of Fontcuberta:
“What is important in a photograph does not lie in the excellence of the process by which it was obtained, or the ability of the eye, but in the function that we oblige them to perform, in their management, the mission we assign them.” (Fontcuberta, 2011)
Joachim Schmid – Meisterwerke der Fotokunst: Ansel Adams
If within the institutional framework, the concept of author maintains a fundamental status to certify the access of the work’s work to the museum, appropriationism has a disruptive effect, and constitutes a powerful tool used by the artist to position himself or question the status quo. In the case of “Meisterwerke der Fotokunst”, Schmid goes further, as he complements appropriation with false attribution to further exaggerate the effect, thereby elaborating a proposal that at the same time undermines the notion of authorship, constitutes a disturbing reminder of the fragility of values that underpin the art market.
Although he works with photography, Schmid is not exactly a photographer – “I am an artist because there is no other description for what I do”- and for more than 30 years he has worked with photographs of unknown origin found on the street. “Pictures from the Street” (1982-2012) is a closed project recently published in book format (4 volumes) that includes 1000 photographs or fragments collected by the author in different streets around the world. Without any intervention, except the date and place where they were found, the images document people’s use and abuse of the photographs. Many photographs have been completely or partially reconstructed from the fragments found, others show evidence of mistreatment, some have been violently scratched in an attempt to erase the face of the portrait. We cannot come to know the reasons for such rage, which may be suggesting to us the bitter end of a tormented love relationship or a scorned resentment of one who has felt betrayed. In the title of the work and in that wandering through the streets of the city collecting images, there are those who want to see an intentional reference to the poetic transits and decisive coincidences of Street Photography. As if he wanted to get a little closer to the referent of photography, in his book “Arcana” (1996-2008), 45 photographs printed from discarded and damaged negatives collected by Schmid in various cities around the world seem to impregnate the photographed scenes with the same disdain and contempt with which they were abandoned.
Joachim Schmid, No. 460, Rio de Janeiro, December 1996, from Pictures from the Street
Between 1986 and 1999, Schmid compulsively collected all kinds of pre-existing photographic material, primarily of vernacular origin – that is, images taken by amateurs in the context of everyday or family life – but also snapshots, studio photos, postcards, commercial photos, photos of missing persons, images from newspapers, stickers of sportsmen and celebrities. With all this accumulated material, it was proposed how to solve the problem of its organization and visualization, arranging the thousands of images collected in a collection called “Archiv“, composed of 726 panels of 40x50cm and containing two or more photographs each, grouped under a series of themes or similar typologies: sunsets, weddings, people with a dog, television in a corner, finger on the camera, etc… The classification logic of the archive is imposed here in what Schmid describes as an ambitious “20th century Photography Studio”, while enveloping this ordinary photographic material with such a sophisticated appearance it is openly positioned against the aesthetic criteria that determine the access of a work to the museum space, thus confirming the nature of the so-called Effect-Museum, capable of converting a worldly object into an exquisite work of art.
Joachim Schmid: Archiv #1, 1986
In 1996 Joachim Schmid was in the city of Vigo (Spain) on the occasion of the VII Fotobienal, where he participated in a collective exhibition together with other relevant figures of contemporary photography (Pedro Meyer, Rut Thorne-Thomsen, Karen Knorr, etc.). The “Garbage Survey Project” (1996-1997) began in this city. For two years, it will travel along pre-established routes in six other cities, collecting and meticulously documenting each one of the photographic materials found, imitating the processes and bureaucracy of the museum. In an “official” form he records all the details of his findings (place, date, sequence,…) and in the map of the city he traces the daily itinerary of his journeys, completing the dossier of this photographic garbage survey with an analytical summary of his findings: for example, in Rotterdam more intact photos were found (68%), while in Vigo he found them mostly broken (83%). In a certain sense, Schmid’s work can be considered an ecological manifesto, which affects the concepts of the superfluous and the excess. The term visual pollution or garbage is a metaphor for the consumerism of images in popular culture. These photographic wastes constitute a treasure for Schmid and the basis for what he calls the Anti-Museum:
“Indeed I think that the nearly 400 photographs I have found so far are a treasure. Some of them are extremely fascinating images (mankind would have lost them irretrievably without my intervention) and the entire group forms a unique compendium of photographic garbage, an anti-museum. While museums collect and preserve those pictures which according to our society’s consensus are important samples of our present culture and should be kept for the future, I’m specialising in those images which obviously are considered so unsuitable and irritating that their makers and owners think they should not have any future at all. These images represent the other half of our culture”. (Schmid, Photographic Garbage Survey Project Statement)
With the advent of digital imaging in the 1990s, photography becomes dematerialized and the waste that nourishes Schmid’s work becomes scarce. The author renews himself and begins in 2008 a new scrutiny by the online platforms of images, which completes in 2011 with the publication of a collection of 96 books entitled “Other’s People Phtographies”, which groups in each volume images according to a specific theme or pattern. According to the author, the approach is encyclopaedic, and the number of volumes is “virtually endless but arbitrarily limited”:
Airline Meals · Airports · Another Self · Apparel · At Work · Bags · Big Fish · Bird’s Eyes · Black Bulls · Blue · Bread · Buddies · Cash · Cheques · Cleavage · Coffee · Collections · Colour · Commodities · Contents · Currywurst · Damage · Digits · Documents · Dogs · Drinks · Encounters · Evidence · Eyes · Faces in Holes · Fauna · Feet · First Shots · Fish · Flashing · Food · Fridge Doors · Gathered Together · Gender · Geology · Hands · Happy Birthday · Hotel Rooms · Images · Impact · In Motion · Indexes · Information · Interaction · Kisses for Me · Lego · Looking · Maps · Mickey · Models · More Things · Mugshots · News · Nothing Wrong · November 5th, 2008 · Objects in Mirror · On the Road · Parking Lots · Pictures · Pizza · Plush · Portraits · Postcards · Purple · Pyramids · Real Estate · Red · Room with a View · Self · Sex · Shadow · Shirts · Shoes · Silvercup · Sites · Size Matters · Space-Time · Statues · Sunset · Surface · Targets · Television · The Other Picture · The Picture · Things · Trophies · Tropic of Capricorn · Various Accidents · Wanted · Writings · You Are Here.
Joachim Schmid: Other People’s Photographs – Faces on holes
Joachim Schmid: Other People’s Photographs – The Other Self
Joachim Schmid: Other People’s Photographs – Flashing
Schmid seems to ask us an interesting question: the decline of printed photography brought about by the digital image has provoked unprecedented visual verbiage that has devalued the value of the image. Each image is part of a continuous flow and its persistence before our eyes depends on the speed with which the user scrolls on his screen or the whims of a secret algorithm. Every day 350 million photos are added to the existing billions: their relevance and subsistence will depend on ideological and mercantile criteria. The digital archive is ephemeral and will survive as long as the servers are supplied with power. Searching in this immense photographic dump, Schmid -the recycler- rescues these images condemned to invisibility and oblivion, with painstaking patience orders, classifies and selects them, and deposits them forever in his particular transparent container.
Fontcuberta, J. (2015). La Cámara de Pandora. Barcelona: Ed. Gustavo Gili.
Susana S. Martins (2014) Photography as Anti-Museum? Conflicting museological concepts in the work of Joachim Schmid, photographies, 7:2, 131-48, DOI: 10.1080/17540763.2014.930923
Other People’s Photographs. (2019). Other People’s Photographs. [online] Available at: https://otherpeoplesphotographs.wordpress.com/ [Accessed 20 Jun. 2019].
Lumpenfotografie.de. (2019). Joachim Schmid – Art, photoworks, books, editions, and everything else. [online] Available at: http://www.lumpenfotografie.de/ [Accessed 20 Jun. 2019].